Um...titled, Laura Couttie
(a meditation on indecision and uncertainty)
The idea for this exhibition has been percolating in my mind for several years now, and I have to admit that I feel both gratified and petrified to be presenting it publicly. But fittingly, such a contradiction is central to the theme of the exhibition.
In its development stage, I thought of this exhibition under two interchangeable working titles, ‘The Inner Critic’ and ‘Status Anxiety’, referencing the two theoretical underpinnings for my inspiration.
‘The Inner Critic’ is a concept used in psychology to refer to the ‘inner critical voice’, the negative voice in our head that judges us harshly and tells us we are not good enough. As a perpetual over- thinker, my mind wages battles between my inner critic and my kinder, more rational self, which struggles to overpower and dis- miss these negative thoughts. Sometimes this voice can be productive, pushing me to work harder to achieve my goals. Other times it inhibits creativity, acting as a roadblock. As I stare at a blank page the analogy of the blank canvas keeps resurfacing; on the one hand a symbol of possibility and potential, on the other, daunting uncertainty.
This concept is not new, nor is it uncommon. Many people deal with varying degrees of anxiety. The act of making and presenting work can cultivate feelings of doubt and indecision. In the art world these feelings can be amplified because there is no right answer, no specific structure within which to operate, the criteria by which value is assigned are highly subjective and changeable. In an art context, the term ‘critic’ refers to the role of the art critic, symbolic of the art world at large, whose judgment of value, or lack of value, contributes to the likelihood of critical success, public recognition and acceptance in the art world.
Alain de Botton’s philosophical text ‘Status Anxiety’ discusses the shared anxiety that many of us feel but rarely talk about, stemming from the human instinct to judge ourselves accord- ing to the way we are percieved by others. De Botton tracks the emergence of our anxiety around status, which, he asserts, is intrinsically tied up with the nature of the contemporary condition.
Traditionally, status was defined by class, or “one’s identity at birth, rather than anything one might achieve in one’s life-time through the exercise of one’s faculties.”1 De Botton’s thesis suggests that since the abolition of strict class distinctions, we have been sold the false dream that anything is possible. Failure, or lack of success, is no longer seen as a result of circumstance out of one’s control, such as being born into the serving class, but instead as a personal failing. As de Botton explains, “Status now rarely depends on an unchangeable identity handed down the generations; rather, it hangs on performance in a fast-moving and implacable economy. It is in the nature of this economy that the most evident trait of the struggle to achieve status should be uncertainty.”2
American psychologist William James suggested a formula for calculating self esteem, in which our ability to feel satisfied with ourselves is based on the outcome of our ambitions and goals. Because we have been taught to strive for more, our ability to achieve high self-esteem is hindered. James stated that, “With no attempt there can be no failure; with no failure no humiliation.”3 To put yourself out there, to reveal your creativity to the world, opens yourself up to failure, and so naturally there is a level of anxiety tied up in the act of creation.
The rise of mass media and more recently, the internet and social media, has pushed expectations even higher. According to de Botton, the way we judge status (in wealth or success) is determined by comparing ourselves to “a reference group, a set of people who we believe resemble us.”4 With the abundance of YouTube sensations, celebrity bloggers and Instagram stars, the myth that anyone can achieve fame and success overnight is perpetuated. Contemporary identity is grounded in comparison and possibility. In fact, I think de Botton summed it up perfectly when he wrote that “anxiety is the handmaiden of contemporary ambition.”5
Through my own attempts to carve out a place for myself in the (art) world, I became interested in the ways artists are negotiating their place within the complex terrain of contemporary art world structures and society in general. I approached seven Melbourne-based artists whose practices resonate with me on this level and invited them to participate in this exhibition. De Botton suggests that “works of art…can function as vehicles to explain our condition to us.”6 And so it is that I attempt to tease out this condition through the work of the exhibiting artists.
The artists engage with these issues through themes of questioning, expectation, self-reflection, self-doubt, vulnerability and disappointment. The thread that runs through the practices of these artists is a slight sense of anxiety that is either clearly visible or exists just under the surface. But these are not only serious works. There are elements of humour, absurdity and play evident in the work of all the exhibiting artists. Humour is often seen as a coping mechanism, referencing the common idiom, ‘if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry’. But it is also a persuasive way of drawing attention to important topics without being didactic or alienating. The works in this exhibition straddle the line between sincerity and self-deprecating humour, offering insightful yet light-hearted observations about navigating the art world, society, and the contemporary condition.
As preparations for the exhibition drew nearer, I decided that neither of the working titles I had been using were appropriate. They were too serious, too rigid and academic. I struggled for weeks to come up with that perfect combination of words to sum up the themes of this exhibition. And then I realised that my hesitation and indecision itself was apt. I wanted the exhibition title to convey the uncertainty of labelling yourself, of making a definite and confident statement, the anxiety of indecision and not knowing. ‘Untitled’, the art world title for an artwork that is unnamed, undefined, and ‘Um’, a recognised sound of hesitation and uncertainty, are both words that perfectly illustrate this exhibition.
‘Um…titled’ is about uncertainty. It is about the attempt to carve out a space for oneself in the world and learning how to negotiate that space. It is about tackling an anxiety born out of ambition and expectation. About attempting to create meaning without knowing what that meaning is. Tensions exist throughout the exhibition. The works teeter between confidence and doubt, ambition and uncertainty, expectation and disappointment, failure and success. The possibility of failure and humiliation is always present, but it is by acknowledging this potential and persisting despite it, that strength and creativity ultimately triumph.
Laura Couttie, 2016
- Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety, Randon House Inc., New York, 2004, p. 87.
- de Botton, 2004, p. 87.
- William James in de Botton, 2004, p. 36.
- de Botton, 2004, p. 25.
- de Botton, 2004, p. 87.